Ravens head coach John Harbaugh reiterated Monday that the team doesn't believe that Pro Bowl running bay Ray Rice suffered a significant hip injury and he didn't rule him out of Sunday's game against the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium.
Rice exited the Ravens' 14-6 victory over the Cleveland Browns early in the fourth quarter with what Harbaugh called a strained hip flexor. Harbaugh said that Rice, who went down untouched on a running play and immediately grabbed his left hip, hasn't taken a magnetic resonance imaging test and there's no current plans for him to get one.
"That's the indication, that it's not anything that's really serious," Harbaugh said. "They would be looking at it [further] if they thought it was. We'll just be day-to-day with him."
Rice needed help to get down the stairs leading to the Ravens' locker room during Sunday's game. He later came back out to the sideline without the help of crutches though he was walking with a pronounced limp.
Harbaugh said that he's leaning toward holding Rice out of practice during the week, but that would not preclude him from playing Sunday against the 2-0 Texans. Traditionally under Harbaugh, Ravens who don't practice all week don't play in that week's game but the sixth-year head coach said that won't necessarily be the case with Rice.
"He's not going to need to practice to play in the game," Harbaugh said. "If he feels great, we'll put him out there and if he doesn't, we'll probably rest him and get him ready to go Sunday if possible."
The 26-year-old running back, who has rushed for 72 yards on 25 carries and caught 11 passes for 44 yards over the Ravens' first two contests, hasn't missed a game since his rookie season in 2008. If he can't play, second-year running back Bernard Pierce would make his first career start and he'd likely be backed up by Shaun Draughn, the former Kansas City Chief who the Ravens picked up last week.
Texans coach Gary Kubiak told reporters at his news conference Monday that Rice's status won't change his team's preparation for the Ravens.
"He's a great player, obviously. But I tell you what, the one behind him is a tremendous player, too," Kubiak said of Pierce. "I mean, he's played extremely well. So I don't think it's going to change anything they do. Our focus has got to be on ourselves. To go on the road, play the world champs, the type of game we're going to have to play, we're going to have to correct our own stuff and stay concerned with what we're doing."
Pierce helped close out the victory over the Browns on Sunday, rushing 19 times for 57 yards and a third-quarter touchdown, which gave the Ravens a 7-6 lead. Leading 14-6 in the fourth quarter, Pierce carried the ball on nine of 11 plays before the Ravens got into victory formation and quarterback Joe Flacco took a knee.
"It was a long fourth quarter, but somebody had to do it. Somebody had to grind out those runs," said Pierce, who had 108 carries for 532 yards and a touchdown during his rookie year and developed into a legitimate threat in the postseason.
Asked if he's ready to step into the featured role if Rice has to miss significant time, Pierce said, "I'm going to have to be. … I just have to keep playing to the best of my abilities and just play ball. Sooner or later, he's going to be back. I have no doubt in my mind he's going to be back."
Rice's injury came just as the Ravens were showing an increased commitment to their running game. Trailing the Browns 6-0 at halftime Sunday and held to 122 yards of total offense over the first 30 minutes, the Ravens came out in the second half determined to run the football. They ran the ball 26 times in the second half, compared to nine in the first half.
On their opening drive of the second half, they ran the ball on nine of 12 plays, culminating in Pierce's 5-yard touchdown run. Rice started the drive with a 14-yard run, but of the other eight running plays, six went for three yards or fewer.
Still, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell stuck with the run even after Rice fumbled and even with the Ravens averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. It paid off as Pierce broke off a couple of first-down runs to allow the Ravens to hold the ball for just under 111/2 minutes of the final quarter. Pierce had 13 carries for 35 yards in the fourth quarter alone.
"We'd sure like runs to go for more than 1 or 2 yards but we understand that sometimes that happens against a good defense," Harbaugh said. "The run game got better as the game went on. It was at its best at the end when it was most important. The fact that we were able to close the game out with our run game was really big. We just have to continue to improve in every area. We are a work-in progress — run game, pass protection, making plays down field, quarterback play, defense, special teams, the whole thing."
Through two weeks, the Ravens are 22nd in the NFL in rushing (78.5 yards per game) and 28th in yards per carry (2.8). While Flacco leads all quarterbacks with 95 passing attempts, the Ravens remain 10th in the league with 57 rushing attempts.
The absence of Rice, a valuable safety valve for Flacco, would hurt the Ravens in both the running and passing game. However, Harbaugh made clear that the team has a lot of faith in Pierce's ability.
"We've had confidence in Bernard since really the day he got here and started practicing because he showed what he's all about. He continues to get better," Harbaugh said. "One thing you may not have noticed is the pass protection. He stepped up on a couple of inside pressures [Sunday] and he really did a great job of standing those linebackers up. He's becoming a complete back. We're just very fortunate to have him on our team."